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The Sunday market

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 1:24 PM  RssIcon

 The Sunday market by Sharif Erik-Soussi

 “Souk” is one of the few Arabic words that a westerner may recognize and have a vague idea to its origins and meaning. It doesn’t quite have the clout of “bazaar” but it calls to mind similar imagery of chaotic open markets, teeming with activity and exotic goods. The souk is what the Sunday church flea market aspires to be. It is a place of exchange, most fundamentally for foods, but just as frequently for ideas and social courtesies. In an age where Arab countries rush to build the biggest, most modern shopping malls the souk still holds a place of circumstance in the Arab consciousness. It’s as much a social event as a commercial one, although the line between the two can be fine indeed.
My Sunday souk is in Taza oulia on the outskirts of the old walled city. There is a plot of land, about one square mile in size, with a foundation of mud packed as firm as its boarding concrete by a thousand generations of a thousand footsteps. On any other day of the week, it makes for a nice bike shortcut away from the lawless roads. But not on Sunday. On Sunday, all of the farmers and herders from the surrounding areas trek into Taza by donkey or diesel to peddle their wares and negotiate their livelihood.
And negotiate they will. I fall squarely in the “women and children” category when it comes to this business, so I only go to the souk when accompanied by my wife’s grandfather, the Hajj, widely considered the finest haggler in the region. Moroccans are generally non-confrontational, so the nuance required for successful haggling often requires a lifetime of fine tuning. You walk a tightrope between offending your counter party and being taken for a fool. An ability to negotiate is considered a top quality of a would-be husband, since so much of it relies on a person’s reputation. A seller would rather forgo a profit than sell to an unsavoury character.  Despite his 80+ years (although no one really knows) the Hajj has the energy of a hummingbird on Souk day. He negotiates is like a shark swims; it is effortless and relentless.
Five dirhams for a kilo of tomatoes? You can’t really expect me to pay that, after all we’ve been through. , can you? I like your tomatoes, and I know your wife is pregnant, but I can’t give you more than three. Four? Well, maybe three and a half if you give me only the best ones. Recognizing my cue, I find one of the kids running around with the plastic bags and buy a few. People will often bring their own, sturdier bags, but the Hajj likes to collect  the disposable ones and re-use them around the house. 
After filling the bags with the bounty of the haggle, we would spend the next hour or so just caching up on the most recent gossip. Reza married a girl through the Internet and is moving to Germany. Hicham was accepted to a university in Fez to work on a doctorate. A French company wants to build a high-rise apartment complex in the new city, and Mohammed may get the contract. Abdelrahman died. A different Abdelrahman just had another son. I’m introduced around as his new American son, and I do my best to return any blessings offered to me. There are a few people that had hoped to win my wife’s hand in previous years, but they’re generally gracious in defeat.
Through the proceedings, I try to keep my eyes open because this is a known spot for pickpockets. Violent crime is very rare, but petty theft is so common there is a specific hand gesture that communicates it. On one occasion, my wife had her cell phone lifted from her backpack, and after a tongue lashing from Hajj about having it there in the first place, he was able to go out and negotiate its return within a half hour.
As the day draws on, the prices tend to improve as peddlers are less inclined to bring back their unsold merchandise up the treacherous mountain passes and more inclined to let them go for less. Provided you were willing to forgo the best of the bunch selection you can buy Clementine oranges or artichokes during the high season for essentially nothing, although never free. One must save face, after all.
In Morocco and the Arab world at large, commerce is generally recognized as God’s work. People don’t ask “What’s your job?” but rather “What business are you in? ” Commerce is how cities are built, families meet, and generations progress. It is the way that a man proves his value to the world, and a merciless filter for activities that society deems worthless. Hajj  is a veteran of two wars, two wives, and a countless brood of grandchildren, but feels the Souk was is where he participates in society most earnestly. It’s hard to argue as we headed back to the house with the fruit of the day’s work.
About a quarter mile outside of the Souk border and another quarter mile to the house, he  turns to me and asks what I had paid for the plastic bags.
“Half a dirham apiece,” I said say, thinking they were in-negotiable
“Humph,” he responds. “You could have gotten two for that price.”


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